Monday 20 May 2013

Headhunters of Borneo - 10

There is a sense of isolation and oriental intrigue about Sarawak; its dense jungle, swampy rain forests, humidity and prodigious amounts of rain dissuade tourists from visiting its ex-headhunting Iban and Dayak tribes. There are very few roads, therefore transportation of goods and people is by watercraft along a labyrinth of rivers that empty into the South China Sea.
An Iban tribesman dressed specially for me
     Our landing at the capital of Kuching was during a violent monsoonal storm. We needed a few days to acclimatise to the overbearing heat and heavy humidity, so we found lodgings at a local Anglican Mission 
    The purpose for being in Sarawak was to take Jean to the remote village of Nanga Kamalee, which I had visited as a 22-year-old traventurer, during Indonesia's undeclared war of ‘Confrontation’ with Malaysia.
Rajah Brooke
 Despite the country’s newfound wealth from oil and timber - much of which is remitted back to Malaya – it remains an unspoilt and fascinating country. It has a ruggedness and mystery that no doubt first attracted British adventurer James Brooke, who in 1838 helped the local Sultanate of Brunei put down an uprising. His reward was to have the area of Sarawak ceded to him.
The dock at Kapit Sarawak
     By allotting himself the role of Governor and self-appointed Rajah, he managed to pull the area together as a country, he banned the practice of headhunting and eventually stopped warfare between the local Iban and Dyak tribes. The Brooke family ruled Sarawak until the late 1940s, when it then gained independence and merged with Malaysia.
     From Kuching, we set off northward by fast patrol boat along the coast to Sarikei, then found another boat to Sibu where we made an overnight stop.  
We joined a long skinny ‘river bus’ for a two hour journey up the Rajang River to the final out-post of Kapit. We were hoping to obtain a Government Permit and a guide to transport us further inland to the Iban village of Nanga Kamalee.
Overloaded canoe on the Rejang River
Finding a guide
The tiny trading post of Kapit, was originally a garrison town set up in 1880 by the Brooke family to separate the warring Iban and Orang Ulu tribes. Despite its primitive isolation, inaccessibility by road and few streets, this small township has an inordinate number of BMWs and Mercedes; all of which are owned by successful Chinese traders whose wealth comes from acting as middlemen between the logging and palm-oil enterprises to be found further along the numerous branches of the Rejang River.
     We were fortunate to meet David Chuo, president of the local Jaycees, he and his fellow members made our few days sojourn all the more informative and enjoyable.
Jean feasting on Rambutan berries
      It was more by luck than judgement that we found a guide; we went for a drink in the bar of a local market and found him slowly getting well and truly sozzled. He was the indigenous headmaster of a primary school located close to the village we were aiming for. He and his assistant were in town on a buying trip for his school, they agreed to take us upriver provided we helped them load their boat.
      The ‘boat' was a narrow, seven-metre canoe with a long-tail outboard motor, to which we precariously had to `plank-walk' across several rolling logs to carry his assortment of purchases: a large second-hand fridge, a one metre glass aquarium with three live fish, two protesting ducks and boxes of foodstuff. A newly recruited teacher with his trunk of worldly goods also joined us.
Resting up on the Rejang River
     Once loaded we set off up the fast-running Rajang River in our quest to revisit some of Borneo’s ex headhunters. It was a painfully slow journey against the flow, which took many hours of squatting, bailing and gripping the edge of our unstable and overloaded canoe. We bounced and battled against currents and rapids, constantly dodging around hidden rocks and floating logs.
The Longhouse of Nanga Kamalee
     Occasional rest-stops were made on sand bars infested with mosquitos and sand flies. It was time for refreshments of rambutan fruit or a shared bottle of beer to be passed around.
By late afternoon we arrived aour host’s school. It was a collection of wooden huts with corrugated tin roofs perched high up in a clearing on the riverbank away from possible flooding. It catered for Iban tribal children who arrived by family canoes on a Monday morning and were collected to return to their villages each Friday night.
     It became dark very quickly, a storm opened up and crashed all around us, far too late to continue upriver. Our guide’s family prepared a rice-based meal for us whilst we unpacked our sleeping bags and mosquito net to set up camp on the floor of an outbuilding.
Nanga Kamalee Longhouse
     The following morning we were taken a short distance upriver by canoe to the village of Nanga Kamalee where we were left with neither a guide nor an interpreter.
An Iban cookhouse
 An Iban village is comprised of a single communal ‘Longhouse’ built on high stilts on the bank of the river; some are so large they can hold several hundred families. Nanga Kamalee, however was small and held about 40 families, each having its own spacious self-contained single room, outside of which, running the full length of the Longhouse, is a covered common veranda, about 7 metres wide, used for socialising and working on crafts or net repairs.

       Our unannounced visit was greeted with interest but with guarded curiosity by the tribe.
Any barriers were soon broken down when I produced photographs taken on a previous visit, of children from the village. These children were now grown up and parents in their own right.
Bathing the kids before bed
      We were made welcome and invited to stay overnight in the headman’s family unit; a large open-plan room used by his extended family for eating, sleeping, food preparation and relaxation. It was in many ways much the same as I had experienced years before, however, It was encouraging to see that conditions of hygiene, comfort and clothing had since improved greatly, I also noticed that there was less tattooing of the body and the custom of men engraving their top teeth with the four playing-card symbols; hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades was no longer evident.     
Going fishing
     Despite the lack of verbal communication, we spent a wonderful evening, hilariously entertaining the village with western party games, harmonica music and sing-a-longs.
       Our hosts were a little unsure of what to do with us the following morning, so they took us back to the river to wait on a sandbar for a passing boat.
Young girl gathering firewood
  Although we were a little disappointed not to have stayed longer at Nanga Kamalee, it was perhaps very fortuitous; because despite a four hour wait, the first boat to come along did not offer a lift down river, but headed upriver, even further away from civilisation. We jumped aboard and soon found ourselves in another unusual situation… to be continued next time.

Today's kids looking at photos of yesterday's kids

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  1. Am I repeating myself when I write that I envy your travels as a youth and your capacity to note changes over the years? Are you by chance a blood relative of Michael Palin of train travel fame?
    Having suffered from a numb bum from canoes I enjoyed immensely your account of time on the water. a description that guide books gloss over. These boats are indeed fragile, one beside us in the Philippines smashing into many pieces on hitting a rock in the rapids. Our guide's comments, "He buggered!" referred to the owner's lack of income for the following month or two in building a new boat and not his being swept downriver in the white water. A question, however, about the headmaster. Was he getting sizzled at the bar, sozzled at the bar or perhaps both in view of his impending return to duty?
    Yet a further question. When sharing older photographs did you by chance meet with locals you stayed with all those years ago and/or did those you shared with know those in the original shots?
    Roy and Jean, keep on with these stories. They are not only interesting but highly motivational to those considering further travel.

    1. Thanks Bob,
      It is good to see that the problems with the comment box has now been fixed.
      As an ex headmaster yourself, your mode of transport to school- even when sozzled - was probably more comfortable. And yes we met some of the kids in the old photographs who now have their own children.
      Remind me to tell you one day about my own efforts to build a dugout canoe during a stay on Groote Eylandt.

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